How important are “big six” clashes?
Posted on August 25, 2019
LIVERPOOL’S 3-1 win against Arsenal was a reminder that Unai Emery’s team is a long way from being contenders, but it also underlined the importance of victories against the big challengers early in the campaign.
So far this season, there have been three games between clubs considered to the the “big six”. Fixtures between the elite half dozen – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham – can be classified as the 30 most important games of the season, at least in deciding the order of deck chairs amongst the realistic contenders. Is that really true?
Over the past five years, the team that has had the best record among the clubs finishing in the top six has emerged as Premier champions only twice, the last two seasons and Manchester City. City have accumulated 198 points over two terms and in each, they have run up around a quarter of their points from clashes with the top six. That’s a higher ratio than the previous three champions. City have lost just three “top six” games in two years, demonstrating they are a team for the big occasion. City lost four times last season, once to a top six side, Chelsea, and twice to teams below halfway (Crystal Palace and Newcastle). In 2017-18, they were beaten twice, both against top sixers, United and Liverpool.
Looking at the past five Premier Champions, there’s no doubt they bully the also-rans, as one would expect. In 2014-15, Chelsea relied on 80% of their 87 points from the teams outside of the top six and 20% from the top bracket. Leicester City, in 2015-16 won almost 83% of their 81 from teams placed from 7 to 20. Leicester had the worst record of any champion club in games against the top six.
People often claim the Premier is the most competitive among Europe’s top leagues and to a certain extent it is, but the gap between the big six and the rest has grown significantly. In the past five seasons, only five times has a team that finished in the lower half of the table beaten a team that has won the Premier. The past five champions have lost 17 games between them and 10 of those losses have been against top six clubs. In the five years between 2009-10 and 2013-14, there were eight occasions where the champions were beaten by a team with a final placing of 11-20.
Looking back in time, the top flight in England was more competitive in that the upper quartile could indeed get beaten by clubs from below mid-table quite often, especially away from home. The unexpected was less unexpected. Manchester City in 1967-68 were beaten by no less than four bottom half teams among their 10 defeats. A year later, Leeds United, who lost just twice, were beaten 5-1 by Burnley, a team that finished in 14thplace. In 1969-70, Everton won 22% of their 66 points from top six games and were beaten by Southampton (19th) and West Bromwich Albion (16th).
Even in Arsenal’s double season of 1970-71, they were thrashed by Stoke (13th) and lost at struggling Huddersfield (15th). Derby County, in 1971-72, suffered eight defeats, including one inflicted upon them by relegated Huddersfield.
Thirty years ago, Liverpool, in their last title-winning season, lost three times by lower-half teams, but won 27% of their points against the top six, underlining their big occasion approach.
More recently, Arsenal’s “invincibles” of 2003-04 were very strong against the top six, accumulating almost 27% of their 90 points from their nearest rivals. A year later, Chelsea’s record was 25.26%.
Surprises will always happen, such as Crystal Palace’s recent win at Manchester United, but the trend, especially for away wins, is for fewer results of this nature. In the past three seasons, the top six clubs have lost an average of 1.72 home games per season. As an historic comparison, the five-year average between 1967-68 and 1971-72 was 2.3 for top six home losses.
Increasingly, the heavily resourced clubs are just too powerful for the rest of the Premier League. If that is indeed the case, then the results from games among the giants could well become those that truly decide the title, assuming that banana skins are avoided as the Uber-clubs run-up their points tally. Liverpool, victors against Arsenal, will certainly feel they have put a marker on the board to add to the nine points they have from the first three games.
The next games among the “big six”
September 1: Arsenal v Tottenham; September 22: Chelsea v Liverpool; September 30: Manchester United v Arsenal.